[Part 2 of 2] How to handle a current “Reluctant Employee”

[Part 2 of 2] How to handle a current "Reluctant Employee"
Written by: Karl Sakas

If someone can do the job but they choose not to, they’re a “Reluctant Employee.” You can avoid hiring them by asking the right interview questions. (More on that in Part 1.)

Here in Part 2, I’ll share what to do if you realize one of your current employees is a Reluctant Employee.

Symptoms of Reluctant Employees

Wondering if a current team member might be a Reluctant Employee? Here are common symptoms:

  • Their job includes a range of tasks, but they keep wasting time on low-priority tasks, as their high-priority tasks languish.
  • When you hired them, they swore they wanted to switch from one career to another… yet now that they’re on board, they keep wanting to do things in their old career area.
  • They request reimbursement for training in areas that aren’t related to their core responsibilities.
  • They don’t seem enthusiastic about their primary job responsibilities.
  • You or their direct manager have to keep reminding them to do things that are a core part of their job.

Those don’t guarantee someone is a Reluctant Employee, but one or more may be a sign that you need to dig deeper. Once you have your suspicions, you need to take action—here’s how.

Advice on handling Reluctant Employees

It’s easier to avoid hiring Reluctant Employees in the first place. Once you realize you have a Reluctant Employee on your payroll, you need to take action. In my experience, avoiding the problem just makes things worse—hurting both client results and coworkers’ morale.

Dig into why they’re reluctant

It’s easier to solve this if you know why someone is a Reluctant Employee. For example:

  • Did they misunderstand the nature of the job?
  • Did you or a colleague over-promise something during the hiring process?
  • Did the employee’s career interests change since they started the job?
  • Did they have a life transition that makes them less enthusiastic about their role, your clients’ industries, or agency work in general?

You’ll get answers through your own observations, observations from your middle managers, and conversation with the employees themselves.

Confirm it’s not a skills issue

If someone wants to do their job but doesn’t have the skillset, they’re not a Reluctant Employee—instead, they’re an undertrained employee.

Map out how you can fix that—including whether the employee can upgrade their skills fast enough to meet your needs.

Assess the gap between today vs. the ideal

What’s the gap between where they are today and where they need to be? (This is an important analysis in any situation, regardless of whether someone is a Reluctant Employee.)

Knowing this should help you—and the employee, and their day-to-day manager—map out how to get from Point A to Point B.

It helps to be specific. For instance, don’t just say, “You should do XYZ faster.” Instead, quantify: “Task XYZ should take less than 4 hours to complete; you’re currently taking 10+ hours to complete it.”

Consider a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

Sometimes, a Reluctant Employee is willing to change. (Or at least they say they’re willing to change…) Now, you and then need to turn intention into action.

Create a framework for their virtuous change by putting them on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Here are some example bullets that might appear (just one or two, I hope!) on a PIP for someone who’s a Reluctant Employee:

  • “I will spend at least 80% of my time on XYZ, before I spend additional time on ABC.”
  • “I will focus the majority of my professional development efforts on improving in my current job, rather than where I want to move next.”
  • “I will stop second-guessing decisions by the development team. If I have concerns, I will speak with my manager first, rather than raise them publicly at team meetings.”
  • “I will complete Task A and Task B before I work on Task C.”

What examples would you add to that list, from what you’ve observed in your current or past Reluctant Employees?

Weigh moving them to a new role

If the Reluctant Employee is a strong culture fit and you have another role that’s a better fit, consider moving them to a new role. But be sure they understand what’s required of them in the new role—you don’t want to have to terminate them from the new role in a few months.

This won’t work if your agency doesn’t have an opening; don’t stress your finances just because you feel guilty.

Reflect on your responsibility in the problem

As a leader, this is at least partly your responsibility—in hiring and/or in managing them.

A friend’s agency ignored red flags when a career designer applied for a job as a project manager. She swore she wanted to move to project management, so they hired her as a PM. Yet as soon as the new PM joined, she started interfering with the designers’ work. She turned out to be a “reluctant PM”; her interference hurt her coworkers’ morale and meant she wasn’t meeting her billable targets. When the agency finally fired her, she sued the agency on trumped-up charges.

Another agency client hired an employee on the promise that she would work across several departments in the near future. Problem is, the employee assumed “soon” was two months… while the department head had assumed 12 months. Three months in, she started looking for a new job… and four months in, she left.

Be careful what you promise, and be skeptical when someone’s behavior reflects a shift from their previous patterns. People can change, but they need a good justification when something shifts. Past performance tends to predict future performance.

Take action!

No matter what you do, don’t avoid the problem! The “can, but won’t” mindset will frustrate you and your middle managers. And eventually, your strong performers may quit because the Reluctant Employee(s) is dragging them down.

It may help to get outside perspective on the situation—from a business partner, a peer at another agency, a coach, or another business advisor. (If everyone agrees it’s a problem but you’re still not sure… you should pay attention to that pattern.)

P.S. Don’t be Bartleby’s boss

In Herman Melville’s 1853 short story Bartleby the Scrivener, the eponymous Bartleby is the epitome of a Reluctant Employee. Eventually, whenever the boss requests something, Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.”

In spite of what’s clearly insubordination, the boss feels bad for Bartleby, and he keeps letting the employee get away with not doing the required job.

The boss finally moves to a new office building to get rid of Bartleby. Talk about conflict avoidance…

(Semi-related, I encourage you to you read Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby’s boss demonstrates what happens when managers abdicate rather than delegate. At only ~32 pages long, it’s free from Project Gutenberg.)

Question: What’s your next step when it comes to handling Reluctant Employees at your agency?

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